Join TSN in a 30 teams in 30 days tour of the NHL in preparation for the upcoming season. The next team up is the Montreal Canadiens. Get the lowdown on their off-season and the issues they face this season. And use the Your Call feature to give us your take on the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge.
After a memorable season that saw them go all the way to the Eastern Conference Final, the 2010-11 campaign was a nasty hangover for the Montreal Canadiens.
It all started with the defence corps, which took its hits right from the start. Andrei Markov suffered yet another knee injury in November and was gone for the season. Stay-at-home blueliner Josh Gorges (season-ending knee injury) was the next to go, while Jaroslav Spacek also missed significant time. With three regulars gone, GM Pierre Gauthier was forced to add James Wisniewski, Brent Sopel and (returning) veteran Paul Mara to a quick-fix blueline that included youngsters P.K. Subban and Yannick Weber and journeymen Hal Gill and Roman Hamrlik.
The drama continued on Feb. 9 of last season - an infamous showdown between the Canadiens and the Boston Bruins. Their black and gold rivals beat them on the scoreboard and in the alley in a wild 8-6 win for Boston. That emotion-filled contest set the stage for a rematch at the Bell Centre that saw forward Max Pacioretty suffer a season-ending neck injury after being taken out by Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara.
Yet through all the challenges they faced last season, there were many positives worth documenting. Pacioretty, Subban, Lars Eller and David Desharnais each stepped up to the cause at crucial times. The faces on the blue line changed frequently during the season, but it didn't stop Carey Price from providing stellar goaltending and emerging as the team's most valuable player. Led by The Cowboy Goalie, the Canadiens still managed to finish sixth in the Eastern Conference and take the eventual Stanley Cup champion Bruins to overtime of Game 7 in the first round.
So with a healthier lineup for the start of this season and last year's lessons learned, what do the Habs do for a follow-up?
Additions: F Erik Cole, G Peter Budaj, D Raphael Diaz, F Michael Blunden, D Jeff Woywitka, D Chris Campoli.
Subtractions: D James Wisniewski, D Brent Sopel, D Paul Mara, F Benoit Pouliot, D Alexandre Picard, D Roman Hamrlik, F Jeff Halpern, F Dustin Boyd.
Prospect Report: After years of courtship, the Canadiens were finally able to bring over Alexei Yemelin. Drafted back in 2004, the Russian blueliner developed his game in the KHL and is touted for his hard hits and solid puck movement. If he arrives as advertised, he should easily fill in the defensive role left by veteran Roman Hamrlik.
The club also signed Raphael Diaz for depth on the blue line and he has not disappointed, playing well at both ends of the ice during the pre-season. The 25-year-old Swiss defenceman could be penciled into the lineup on opening night.
Another big surprise has been 2010 draft pick Brendan Gallagher. The 5'8" winger has played a big man's game in the preseason, driving for the net and generating plenty of scoring chances. Another year in the WHL is likely (including a shot at Canada's world junior team), but could a nine-game cup of coffee with the big club be in the cards?
Louis Leblanc will spend this season honing his game in Hamilton. The 2009 first-rounder - who's also recovering from off-season shoulder surgery - was drafted as a centre but will likely be moved to the wing once he's ready to make the jump to the NHL.
Breakout Player To Watch: Before the much-publicized Chara incident, Max Pacioretty was best remembered last season for remarks he made at the Bell Centre last November as a member of the AHL's Hamilton Bulldogs. "I just don't see the need, for my development, to play the bottom two lines in the NHL because ultimately I feel I'm going be a top six forward," he said. "That's what I want to be. I've experienced the bottom two lines in Montreal and it's obviously not what's going to develop me into the player I want to be."
It didn't take long for the Canadiens to see if he was right. The club called up Pacioretty the following month and he made an immediate impact with 14 goals and 24 points in 37 games. If he can stay healthy, the 6'2", 200-pound forward will be that young, big body-presence the team has desperately needed.
Marquee Match-Up: Toronto-Montreal games are fun to watch. But where real rivalries are concerned, Canadiens and Bruins is where it's at - past, present and (as far as we can see) future. And it all begins again on Oct. 27 and 29 when the two teams meet for the first time since Game 7 with a home-and-home to kick off their season series. The gang's all here - Subban, Marchand, Pacioretty, Chara, Thomas, Price and so much more. Watch the sparks fly.
Other Dates To Watch: Dec. 19-31 - Cirque du Soleil's two-week stint at the Bell Centre in December sends its beloved tenant out on their longest road trip of the year - a six-game trot through Boston, Chicago, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Tampa Bay and Florida. The holiday trip has been an annual tradition of sorts for the Canadiens and arguably their toughest stretch of the regular season.
Reason To Get Excited: The Triple Low Fives. Canadiens fans love it and opponents simply dread it. Despite a 17-year championship drought, the Canadiens have some swagger in their steps courtesy of Carey Price and P.K. Subban.
And their play has certainly backed it up. Price was a workhorse in goal, setting a team record for starts (72), winning 38 games and tallying the third-most shutouts (eight). Subban scored 14 goals and 38 points last season, dazzling fans each night with his speed, skating ability and (to take a phrase from the late great Danny Gallivan) cannonading shot from the point.
It sounds simple, but it's true - when both players are on, good things happen. And those things will likely come at a higher price next season, as both players become restricted free agents next summer.
Home Hardware: Tim Thomas was the overwhelming favourite, but some eyebrows were raised last spring when Price wasn't named as one of the three finalists for the Vezina Trophy.
No player in the NHL faced more pressure to deliver last season than Price and Anahim, B.C.'s favourite son did not disappoint. If Price can match last season's performance (even if he plays a bit less with backup goalie Peter Budaj in the fold), he's a lock for the Vezina discussion.
On The Hot Seat: In Montreal, pointing the finger at Scott Gomez's struggles on the score sheet is like shooting fish in a barrel. With 38 points, a minus-15 and a $7.35 million cap hit - it's not that hard to do.
And with Gomez costing (in real dollars) $5.5 million and $4.5 million in each of the last two years of his contract - an attractive option for any salary-starved team - many fans hoped Gauthier would take the easy route and ship the veteran centre out.
But if there's one thing Gauthier has shown in his short tenure as Canadiens GM, he's not one to take the easy route. Last season, just about everyone thought he would trade Carey Price after Jaroslav Halak's playoff run. Didn't happen. Gauthier stuck to his guns on Price and Price did everything short of earning a Vezina Trophy nomination. And Gauthier is sticking to his guns with Gomez. It's now up to Gomez to repay his boss - and the team - for that patience with an improved campaign.
Drafted 10th overall by the Canadiens in 2003, Andrei Kostitsyn arrived on the scene with lots of talent to boast. But the team has yet to see that on a consistent basis. The Canadiens' top six spots up front are set and it will be up to Kostitsyn to work his way back in.
It's Your! Call: When Chara lifted the Stanley Cup back in June, the Canadiens and their fans collectively asked, "Could we have been the ones celebrating?"
The Habs went the full distance with the Bruins in their first-round series, losing in an overtime period that could have gone either way. Granted, there was no telling if they could have gone deeper, but any way you cut it, the Canadiens came pretty close.
But are they close enough this year? Gauthier addressed some of the team's off-season needs by acquiring power forward Erik Cole, but is it enough size up front? Can they score more goals? Is Andrei Markov healthy enough to make an impact this season? Is the defence deep enough to compete without him? Can Price continue his stellar play?
And if each of these questions can be answered with a yes, are the Canadiens Stanley Cup contenders this season?